Next year's Rio+20 meeting must put science-based innovation at the heart of the development agenda. But the real battle will be political.
In an ominous sign of things to come, last week's G20 meeting of the world's leading economies in Cannes, France was dominated by discussion of the financial turmoil in Europe — overshadowing a debate, for which many had hoped, on the future of global development.
The main speaker on the latter topic was Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who used the occasion to remind participants that, whatever the difficulties of the world's industrialised nations, the biggest problem facing the planet as a whole remains the gap between the rich and the poor.
The solution, said Gates, lies in devising ways of encouraging greater technological innovation, in areas such as food security and the elimination of disease. Only by stimulating their own capacity for innovation, he argued, can poor countries rescue the majority of their populations from grinding poverty and the social ills that accompany it.
It is a message that needs repeating as often as possible. In particular, the importance of science-based innovation must lie at the heart of next June's Rio+20 discussions on sustainable development. Effective innovation holds the key to development, just as it does to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
But innovation involves more than just science and technology. It is a social process in which both economic and – ultimately – political factors have important roles to play.
The real challenge in Rio will be to find ways of harnessing these forces to achieve a productive outcome through sustainable innovation, rather than letting them become an obstacle on which negotiations flounder, as they did at the climate summit in Copenhagen two years ago.
To his credit, Gates seems to have taken on board the complexity of the challenge. In its early days, the Gates Foundation focussed much of its energy on achieving big and significant scientific and technology breakthroughs in key fields, encapsulated in its 'grand challenges' programme.
While these have played a significant role in re-establishing the importance of science on the international development agenda, they have also come under fire for implying that development can be a science-driven process — a 'magic bullet' approach that ignores the complexities of applying science to address social needs.
In his speech at Cannes, Gates took a broader view, stressing the need to address social processes, from patent policy to government regulation, through which innovation takes place. Only by addressing these, he correctly pointed out, can the full potential contribution of science to development be achieved.
But this, in turn, comes up against the political frameworks within which these social processes operate. And it raises a new question: to achieve true global development, can the current political framework encourage the type of social inclusion that even Gates recognises as necessary?
Take climate change, for example. It is ironic that, just when many developing countries are waking up to the implications of global warming — for example, in terms of threats to their future food security — public opinion surveys reveal that scepticism about the need for urgent climate action is growing in the developed world, particularly (but not solely) in the United States.
While countries such as Brazil and China are building adaptation policies into their development strategies — including plans to make green technologies a cornerstone of their export industries — international negotiations aimed at addressing the root causes of the climate problem have been in political stalemate since Copenhagen.
As a result, expectations are low for any significant breakthroughs in the next round of negotiations, due to open in Durban, South Africa, at the end of this month. At the same time, the developing world is facing an increasing toll of climate related disasters, from massive flooding in Southern Asia to the droughts in East Africa.
A new world order?
Further down the line, next year's Rio+20 meeting will be an opportunity to take stock of what progress has — and has not — taken place in the 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit in the same city, which placed sustainable development on the international political agenda and resulted in treaties on climate change, persistent pollutants, biodiversity and desertification.
But the picture is not all gloomy. Significant scientific advances have helped to produce new technologies, from solar cells to space-based monitoring of natural disasters, and shed light on the problems the world faces whilst offering solutions.
Now, the major hurdle is not so much producing even more relevant science and technology, but building the capacity to put what has been produced to good use.
Free markets alone are clearly not up to this task. But challenging the market — by establishing a World Environment Organisation with equal clout to that of the World Trade Organisation, for example — means challenging the interests of those who benefit most from it.
As many have pointed out, the current global economic crisis represents an ideal opportunity to address this challenge head-on. And, at least in principle, the Rio+20 meeting could be an opportunity to put flesh on the bones of a new world order built on sustainable and inclusive innovation.
Whether any of the world's major developed nations have the guts to allow this to be put on the agenda, given the sacrifices it will inevitably require them to make, remains to be seen. Don't hold your breath.